Sonia Sikka on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Sonia Sikka

Sonia Sikka is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa, Canada. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Martin Heidegger once wrote that the idea of a “Christian philosophy” is like that of a square circle, because philosophy is essential questioning and faith cannot participate in such questioning. Philosophy asks, “Why is there something rather than nothing,” whereas for faith the question is answered before even being posed: all that is, is created by God, the supreme being. While many theologians would likely want to make more room for reason within their method of inquiry than such a position allows, Heidegger is typical among Western philosophers in drawing a sharp distinction between the realms of faith and philosophy. Faith means acceptance of some doctrines as given, whether these are revealed in a text or communicated by a religious authority, and commitment to living in accordance with these doctrines. Philosophy, by contrast, is supposed to take nothing as given. Although it may address itself sometimes to a topic that is also an object of faith, it relates to that topic in a different way.

In wider contemporary discourse, moreover, “religion” is often taken to be synonymous with faith. After all, the world’s various religions are commonly referred to as “faiths.” On this understanding, “philosophy of religion” becomes rational investigation of views that religions accept on faith. I have never found this approach to be quite satisfactory. I would question the assumption that “faith” necessarily defines religion, and that the content of religion is given through such faith, with philosophy’s task then being to investigate the truth of that content in a fashion that is “external” to religion. In addition, I am troubled by the conception of “religions” as fixed bundles of creed, so that “religious” people must belong to one or another of these.

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Bassam Romaya on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Bassam Romaya

Bassam Romaya is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The philosophy of religion might seem to suggest that the subject area deals with a series of philosophical questions about religion, perhaps a “meta-theological” undertaking, a series of cryptic meditations about the nature or origin of some necessary being, mundane ruminations on the problem of evil, an examination of religious experience, analyses on the distinction between faith and reason, and so on. Apart from rudimentary questions, it appears to me that an increasingly widening approach to the various components of philosophy of religion is essential. In reflecting upon the question of meaning, articulating the nature of contemporary philosophy of religion, I have found it helpful to draw upon insights I encountered from students, as a result of undergraduate instruction in courses that intersect the margins of philosophy and religion, courses on world religion, world philosophy, Arabic/Islamic philosophy, mysticism, and the like.

One of the leading questions we consider, usually at the outset of the term, attempts to articulate methodological differences between the two disciplines in order to identify any similarities and differences, and ultimately, ground a workable account that serves as a springboard for our study of the various issues commonly examined in such courses, broadly construed. In appealing to the etymological root of religion from the Latin, religare, “to bind or tie,” in other words, to bind an individual to a relationship of obligation or one of mutual devotion (as Sri Krishna teaches us in the Bhagavad Gita) to a system, higher power/s or entity/ies believed to preside over one’s destiny, we find a lucrative account from which to correlate our understanding of the two domains of inquiry. In this sense, an informed position might mean an attitude toward the human condition, a particular perspective about the world, a generational collection of cultural or moral wisdom, largely depended on being positioned within a narrative or metaphorical story about the origin and purpose of human life. These ideas are fascinatingly close to what is sometimes meant by philosophy, as a repository of some set of principles, a weltanschauung, a value system that holds some special significance for its proponents. I do not contend that philosophy and religion are identical pursuits, nor that their methodologies are merely synonymous. What is particularly significant is the observation that students often have difficulty articulating the differences between the two subjects and their methods, mistakenly believing that philosophy is an entirely secular enterprise whereas religion is that branch of philosophy with a God/s-principle at its core. This insight illuminates the sense in which both philosophy and religion expound value systems, deemed either sacred (religion) or supremely significant (philosophy) for its adherents.

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Dwayne Tunstall on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Dwayne A. Tunstall

Dwayne A. Tunstall is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and African/African American Studies at Grand Valley State University. His most recent book is Doing Philosophy Personally: Thinking about Metaphysics, Theism, and Antiblack Racism (Fordham University Press, 2013). We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In my more cynical moments, I am tempted to regard philosophy of religion as an ongoing quixotic quest to study an analytically inadequate concept—namely, religion. My cynical self would contend that philosophers of “religion” no longer need to use any substantive concept of religion to study phenomena once classified as religious in nature. Philosophers of “religion” can just study the beliefs held by members of communities traditionally considered to be religious communities. Then, they can construct accounts of those beliefs, alongside accounts of the practices and rituals performed by members of those communities, using knowledge acquired from the most adequate ethnographic studies and historical accounts of those communities. This approach would be a cynical appropriation of G. Scott Davis’s advice to students of comparative religions and ethics in Believing and Acting (Oxford University Press, 2012): “[U]nderstanding religion requires nothing more than the sensitive and imaginative reading of human phenomena informed by the best available ethnography set in the best available historical narrative” (3). Thankfully, I haven’t let those cynical moments determine how I define the field.

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Christine Overall on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Christine Overall

Christine Overall is a Professor of Philosophy and holds a University Research Chair at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Her most recent book is Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate (MIT Press, 2012). We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

As I child I was a bookworm, and the kind of books I loved most were about magic. I started with the endlessly proliferating Oz books, but soon found them facile and implausible. I then devoured Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I was also captivated by Edwardian novelist E. Nesbit’s books, especially her trilogy, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Amulet. And I immersed myself in the works of twentieth-century American writer Edward Eager, in particular Half Magic, Knight’s Castle, Magic by the Lake, and The Time Garden. These books introduced me to alternate histories, time travel, identity shifts, magical charms, powerful incantations, and supernatural capacities.

Although I knew that these books were not literally true, I fervently hoped that they might turn out to be the fictional representation of a real world of magic—a world where one might buy a magic carpet and be transported through space and time, where one could find a magic coin that granted wishes (or even half-wishes), where an enchanted animal called a Psammead would transform dull normalcy into endless possibilities, and where children could be masters of their fate and independent agents of their own choices.

But the books that enchanted me most were C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I had been raised as an Anglican. As a child I often prayed for God’s help, although I never received any noticeable response. Thanks to weekly Sunday School classes, which taught me stories and verses from the King James Version of the Bible, I was an avid and unquestioning believer.

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Luo Shirong on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Luo Shirong

Luo Shirong is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Simmons College. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

That is a very difficult question because in order to define “philosophy of religion” one needs to be clear about what philosophy and religion are, respectively, and those two terms are notoriously hard to delineate adequately. What is philosophy? This beguilingly simple question seems to require an extended discussion, as evidenced by the monographs written by such philosophers as Martin Heidegger and Gilles Deleuze.

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Phillip Wiebe on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Phillip H. Wiebe

Phillip H. Wiebe is Professor of Philosophy at Trinity Western University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

If philosophy consists of critical reflection on logic, ontology, epistemology, axiology, and linguistic meaning – its core historical content – then philosophy of religion consists of these kinds of critical reflection on beliefs and behaviors “associated in some way with a supernatural realm, a sphere of divine or spiritual beings.” This rough definition of religion is from Daniel Pals, who thus distils (Seven Theories of Religion) the views of seven great theorists of the last century: Frazer, Freud, Durkheim, Eliade, Evans-Pritchard, Tylor, and Geertz. I consider the most insightful general approach to the ontological status of religious claims to be that of W. V. O. Quine, who observed that the gods are cultural posits whose epistemological footing is similar, although inferior, to that of physical objects (“Two Dogmas of Empiricism”).

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Graham Oppy on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Graham Oppy

Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy and Associate Dean of Research at Monash University, Australia. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

While there are many other parts of philosophy of religion, the part that seems to me to be both central and of the greatest interest is the assessment or evaluation of worldviews.

Not all worldviews are religious. Along with Christian worldviews, Islamic worldviews, Jewish worldviews, Hindu worldviews, Buddhist worldviews, Jain worldviews, Sikh worldviews, Daoist worldviews, and so forth, there are worldviews that are at most marginally religious — e.g. Confucian worldviews — and worldviews that are decidedly not religious — e.g. secular worldviews, naturalistic worldviews, and so forth. Nonetheless, philosophy of religion is properly concerned with the assessment of all of these kinds of worldviews.

There are three major stages in the assessment of worldviews.

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Joseph Trabbic on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Joseph Trabbic

Joseph G. Trabbic is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University. His research and publications are in medieval philosophy, continental philosophy, philosophy of religion, and metaphysics. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

A lot (and perhaps most) of what goes by the name “philosophy of religion” today standardly concerns itself with questions about the nature, existence, and cognitive accessibility of God and related matters. This holds true for both analytic and continental philosophy of religion. And it also happens to be the way that I think of the subject. But is this approach to philosophy of religion defensible? I believe it is.

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Jerome Stone on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Jerome Stone

Jerome A. Stone is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Illinois and on the adjunct faculty of Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. His courses have included Environmental Ethics, Nonwestern Philosophy, World Religions and Racism in America. He is the author of The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion (SUNY) and Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative (SUNY) and the co-editor of The Chicago School of Inquiry—Pioneers in Religious Inquiry. A United Church of Christ pastor for 18 years, he is now a Unitarian Universalist minister involved in adult religious education. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy is disciplined thinking creating surmises about matters of importance. There is no consensus about the method of reaching or supporting these visions, hence they are surmises. A case can be made for such a surmise, but it is always subject to challenge. In the final analysis there is no final analysis (apparent contradiction intended).

Discipline is practiced by various means, including learning from other philosophies, being open to challenge, exploring the accumulated wisdom of humanity, seeking empirical fit where appropriate, and so forth.

In developing my own thinking I have attempted to define religion in such a way as to include religious naturalism and religious humanism. Most conceptions of religion involve a reference to a transcendent dimension. My working definition of religion is that it is an orientation of life in relation to the “Big Picture.” A humanist who tries to live her life in the light of the world as shown by the best current science is, insofar, religious. This is the naturalist analogue to standard notions of transcendence.

Thus philosophy of religion will involve disciplined thinking about how to live our lives in the light of the Big Picture.

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Michael Potts on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”


Michael Potts

Michael Potts is Professor of Philosophy at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. His Ph.D. is from The University of Georgia. He is the co-editor of Beyond Brain Death: The Case against Brain-Based Criteria for Human Death (Kluwer, 2000), and has authored numerous articles and book reviews for academic journals as well as making over fifty conference presentations. He is also the author of a novel, End of Summer (WordCrafts Press, 2011) and an award-winning poetry chapbook, From Field to Thicket. His philosophical interests are in medical and applied ethics, the philosophy of religion, medieval philosophy, and philosophy and parapsychology. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

There are so many “philosophies-of-disciplines” that my wife, who does not share my love of philosophy, sarcastically asks if “there is a philosophy of toenail clipping.” However, philosophy of religion has been a stalwart and respectable sub-discipline of philosophy. There are philosophers who disagree—A. J. Ayer once replied to a philosopher who mentioned philosophy of religion, “Oh. . .I didn’t know there was any such thing.” Other than positivists such as Ayer, philosophers of all stripes, including atheists, agree that philosophy of religion is a legitimate field.

To answer the question of “What is philosophy of religion?” a person must have some definition of “philosophy” and “religion.” Continue reading